The Fifth Head of Cerberus Analysis

Gene Wolfe

The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

In eighteen sections and about eighty pages, “Number Five,” the nickname assigned to the otherwise anonymous protagonist by his father, composes a memoir of his first thirty years. His account starts at the age of seven, when his comfortably privileged routine is disturbed. He lives with his supposed brother, David, who appears genetically dissimilar, and a robot tutor, Mr. Million. His life is transformed over the next eleven years into a sort of hell, appropriate to the family address of 666 Saltimbanque and the houses portal statue of Cerberus. His emotionally distant father conducts increasingly arduous nocturnal interrogations, eventually involving drug injections, time loss, memory loss, and hallucinatory dreams, the latter recalling the novellas epigraph from Samuel Taylor Coleridges The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798).

At the age of thirteen, the narrator is appointed porter or “greeter” of 666 Saltimbanque, which serves as both the family home and a brothel. This post equates him to Cerberus. At the age of eighteen, the narrator, his sweetheart, Phaedria, and David turn to petty theft among the audience of their plays to support their dramatics, then to attempted grand theft of the cashbox in the depths of a multistoried gladiatorial slave warehouse. Their descent echoes the heros into the underworld in Homers The Odyssey and Vergils The Aeneid, ancient texts that are Davids favorite reading. The cashbox,...

(The entire section is 503 words.)